How Biological Agents Are Delivered and Detected
Biological agents could either be found in the environment using advanced
detection devices or after specific testing or by a doctor reporting a medical
diagnosis of an illness caused by an agent. Animals may also be early victims
and shouldn't be overlooked.
- Early detection of a biological agent in the environment allows for early
and specific treatment and time enough to treat others who were exposed with
protective medications. Currently, the US
Department of Defense is evaluating devices to detect clouds of biological
warfare agents in the air.
- Doctors must be able to identify early victims and recognize patterns of
disease. If unusual symptoms, a large numbers of people with symptoms, dead
animals, or other inconsistent medical findings are noted, a biological warfare
attack should be suspected. Doctors report these patterns to public health
Protective measures can be taken against biological warfare agents. These
should be started as soon as a biological agent is suspected (if enough warning
- Masks: Currently, available masks, such as the military gas mask or
high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter masks used for tuberculosis exposure, filter out most biological
warfare particles delivered through the air. However, the face seals on
ill-fitting masks often leak. For a mask to fit properly, it must be fitted to
a person's face.
- Clothing: Most biological agents in the air do not penetrate unbroken skin,
and few organisms stick to skin or clothing. After an aerosol attack, the
simple removal of clothing eliminates a great majority of surface
contamination. Thorough showering with soap and water removes 99.99% of the few
organisms that may be left on the victim's skin.
- Medical personnel protection: Health care providers treating victims of
biological warfare may not need special suits but should use latex gloves and
take other precautions such as wearing gowns and masks with protective eye
shields. Victims would be isolated in private rooms while receiving
- Antibiotics: Victims of biological warfare might be given antibiotics
orally (pills) or through an IV, even before the specific agent is
- Vaccinations: Currently, protective vaccines (given as shots) are available
for anthrax, botulinum toxin, tularemia, plague, Q fever, and smallpox. The
widespread immunization of nonmilitary personnel has not been currently
recommended by any governmental agency. Immune protection against ricin and
staphylococcal toxins may also be possible in the near future.